How I Got Through College Without Crippling Student Loan Debt, aka Thanks, Mom and Dad

This morning, I read yet another “how I wound up with a bajillion dollars worth of student loan debt” article. And I experienced my usual reaction: it’s not as if the cost of tuition or the cost of interest on the loans were a surprise. No one did that to you. You made a choice. If you don’t want to end up with crippling debt, don’t borrow the money.

Then, I thought back to my own college experiences, and about the choices that I made that allowed me to graduate debt-free. And I realized that it’s an easy thing to point debt-free fingers now, but important to remember that when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, there’s no magic place from which to get the information you need to make smart financial choices. The learning curve for how borrow responsibly and manage debt can be steep.

After one year in college, I wanted very much to transfer from my affordable state university to a fancy private school in my dream city. My parents, who were generously paying the full bill for me to attend said state school, were not happy about this decision. They didn’t really understand it. Neither of them attended a residential college. My dad commuted to his school while living at home with his parents, and my mom didn’t go to college, instead working to save money while dad was in school. “That’s just what people did,” mom always said.

So, the idea of eschewing this incredible free (to me) thing – a full ride, including room and board, at a well-regarded university, in favor of a much more expensive degree at a school that they regarded as essentially the same only this one would require plane tickets to get me there and back and a much higher price tag – was unthinkably bizarre to them.

To me, the allure was living in the brand new city, spreading my wings, and experiencing life. The school had a unique work-study program that would have allowed me a structured way to get significant work experience under my belt by the time I graduated. It also involved moving away from home, which had a lot of appeal.

My parents only saw the price tag: Fancy Private School cost a whopping three times as much as Perfectly Fine State University. My parents were willing to continue paying the same money they had set aside for me to attend Perfectly Fine State University, but I would have to come up with the balance on my own.

I knew even then that coming up with that amount of money was not going to be easy.

I was disappointed. My dreams of living a grand life in Fabulous New City were crushed. Darn my parents and their practicality!

I stayed at Perfectly Fine State University and learned to make the best of it. I made good friends. I found my own work-study opportunities.

I’ll be honest – it was a long time before I was able to let go of the big idea of attending Fancy Private School. I can look back on it now, twenty-plus years later, and see the benefit of my choice to stay at Perfectly Fine State University as I am able to move forward with my life enjoying the lack of crippling debt that an expensive undergraduate education would have cost me.

What stopped me from taking out loan after loan and [insert dramatic emphasis] going after my dream of attending Fancy Private School was not logic or understanding of personal finance. It was, quite simply, my parents.

It was seeing how stressed my mother was at wanting so badly to help me have the thing I clearly wanted but knowing she couldn’t afford to send me there. (And, to be fair, my parents gave me a pretty nice life. It’s just that the Thing That I Wanted was ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.)

It was sitting with my dad in the hotel room in Fancy New City when he took me there to visit the school (and probably hoped to show me that it really wasn’t all that different than my Perfectly Fine State University. To me, though, Fancy New Private School was all glitter and rainbows). After going on a tour of the campus, we went back to the hotel, and had a chat. That’s when he said that he and my mother were prepared to continue paying the same amount of money they had planned to pay to send me to Perfectly Fine State University, and that if I were serious about attending Fancy Private School, I was going to be responsible for coming up with the difference in cost.

“How are you going to do that?” my father asked. I had no idea. I had a vague awareness that other people took out loans. I thought I could do that, too! My dad explained a bit about how long it might take to pay off that amount of money. He talked about how difficult it might be for me to borrow the amount of money I needed, because he was not willing to co-sign a loan or sign the student loan paperwork that would require me (him) to divulge his salary and other assets to the federal government.

I was stumped. How do other people do this, I wondered?

I still don’t know for sure how people finance that kind of expensive anything without help. Through massive interest rates, most likely. Perhaps they do have a parent or other family member willing to co-sign a loan. I truly don’t know how people even get that kind of money to borrow, let alone figure out how to pay back, without any participation from their parents, as nascent young adults without an established credit history.

What I do know is that it was hard enough to figure out how to live on my entry-level paycheck for my first job out of college without loan payments to make. I don’t see how I could have gone to graduate school with that kind of debt under my belt, either. Or bought a house. Or saved for retirement.

Do I wonder, every now and then, what life would have been like had I been able to move to Fancy New City and attend Fancy Private School? Sure, I do. Am I grateful that I had parents willing to help me put the brakes on and make a more sensible decision that would affect me long-term? Absolutely. I realize that not everyone has that kind of support built in, and I try to keep that in mind when I read yet another article about someone who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of college debt without realizing just how financially crippling that would be. Sometimes, people really don’t know the effects of a decision like that until it’s too late.

The Day of My Defense

The day of defending my doctoral dissertation, I arrived on campus several hours early to go over my notes and calm my nerves. I had planned to spend a few hours practicing my talk in my private library study room. I walked in and noticed that someone else’s things were in the room. While the rooms were designed to accommodate two people, I had had the space to myself for years. No problem, though, I just figured I should grab a second chair in case my new roommate came to use the space. Even after completing a defense, there were still several months of revisions that were possible, and I wanted to be prepared to continue using the space during that time.

I walked down the hall to the library administration office and introduced myself to the administrative assistant. I asked for a second chair so that my roommate and I could both be accommodated. She seemed confused by this, and looked up my room assignment.

Her demeanor quickly changed to one of accusation. She said her records showed that I graduated several years prior, so clearly I had been using the room and my key card against regulations all this time.

Now I was confused. Obviously, I’m still here, I pointed out. I have not graduated. I am using the room as assigned.

She insisted I was abusing the privilege of using the room and was not supposed to be there. Meanwhile, I had a dissertation to defend and no time for this nonsense.

We left it with her saying she would follow up later, and me going back to the study area to complete the preparations for my talk, and to calm down.

This encounter was not, unfortunately, unusual at my institution. In my years there, I had encountered numerous instances of poor processes, rude individuals, and red tape with the library, financial aid, registration, my academic department, the graduate school, my dissertation committee … the list goes on.

Bottom line: the school should have offered support of my preparations for my defense, not obstacles. And yet here I was, on the day of my defense, the day to which the university had a vested interest (one would think) in encouraging me to meet with success, and I was dealing with yet another argument, yet another difficult and incongruous situation.

As annoying as the library experience was, though, I had no idea of what kind of obstacles were waiting for me at the defense.

I walked into the conference room prepared to give my talk. My dissertation advisor, Professor K, came in. A few of my classmates joined us. One by one, my department chair arrived, then the program advisor, then one of my other committee members, who also happened to be the Dean of the Liberal Arts department.

My third reader was missing. The hour was upon us. No sign of her. The air in the room was getting thick with tension. What professor is this kind of late to their student’s defense?

My advisor went to find her. More time passed. She came back in, whispered something to the department chair, and they left the room together.

An eternity passed. It got awkward, as my classmates and I all knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and had no clue what to say to each other. The department chair finally came back in and asked everyone other than my second reader and the program advisor to leave.

Finally, my third reader, Professor N, came in the room. She sat down across from me and looked uncomfortable.

I found out later that she had told my advisor earlier in the day that she wasn’t going to attend, and that she had no intention of signing off on my work. My advisor opted not to warn me, thinking that she only needed a majority of signatures on the dissertation for me to pass, and so she was going to let Prof. N. abdicate from signing.

So there I sat, with no earthy clue why one of my committee members was so rudely late or so awkwardly pulled into the room.

Prof. K told Prof. N that she needed to explain herself.

“I’m not going to sign your dissertation,” she said. She didn’t feel it was scholarly, and wasn’t willing to put her name on it.

Silence.

Remember, that also at that table were the other two members of my committee – one of whom was the Dean and the other was my committee chair, who was a tenured, senior professor – along with the department chair and program advisor. These were exactly the people you might expect to speak up for a student in such a situation. Yet not one of them said so much as a word. They simply looked at me and waited for me to respond to this bizarre news that – for me – came out of nowhere.

I distinctly remember a moment of absolute clarity during that silence when I realized this one thing: no one in that room was going to speak up on my behalf. The only person in that room who was going to speak up for me was me.

There was a time in my life when confrontation like this would have sent my crying out of the room. I would have simply retreated, having known no other way to respond.

But in this instance, it was as if the last seven years flashed before me. In my third reader’s refusal to sign my work, I saw everything I had done to get to that point. I saw the years of lost earnings while I worked part-time and gave up a career in marketing, along with the years of increased salary that staying in that field would have brought.

I saw the time after time that I was told my work was good, that I was getting close, that surely I would graduate next semester, only to be yanked back again and again because someone else had decided that the work just wasn’t ready.

I saw the end of my marriage, which had crumbled during my years in graduate school. The relationship didn’t end due to my being in school, but my earning a degree that he wanted while not being able to get into a program himself slowly chipped away at our partnership and began revealing the weak places.

No. Just, no. She did not get to take away the last seven years of work, and stress, and isolation. She did not get to take away my ideas, and my writing, and my progress. She did not get to erase my scholarship.

I looked her square in the eye and said:

“I have been working with you for years. I have made every change you have asked for. I have read every book you suggested. You wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, praising my ideas. I consulted you on scheduling this defense and you approved our meeting today. If your feelings against my work were this strong, why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”

More silence. She was stunned. I think everyone else was, too. She then had to explain herself, and really couldn’t, because there was simply no acceptable explanation for her behavior.

She tried to say that the problem was the font that I had chosen. That’s right: the font.

The graduate school had a list of acceptable fonts from which to choose, and I picked one off the list that several classmates who had graduated before me had chosen. She had recommended I choose a different one. That is the one and only change she had suggested over the course of years that I did not implement, because I had followed the rules and, frankly, had had it with being jerked around here, there, and everywhere doing everything my committee members said I should do instead of being expected to think for myself. I picked an acceptable font, she said her suggestion was just a personal preference and not a requirement, yet here we were.

I was then told that I had a choice: I could accept that she would not sign my dissertation and be ABD forever, or I could start over from scratch with a new topic that would likely require a new committee.

I said neither of those options was acceptable. I had done everything required of me. This was insane.

She then said the other option was for me to replace her with a different third reader, potentially making the changes that person wanted, and risking that the new third reader would not be happy with my progress. My chair had some names in mind of who might be a suitable replacement. Fine. If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it. Prof. N was officially excused from serving on my committee.

I somehow made it through that entire ordeal without crying. To this day, I don’t know how. I know my voice wavered. I know I looked upset. But I did not cry.

I did not cry when I got to my car and started texting the friends who were going to meet me at a restaurant to celebrate, telling them that the party was off.

I did not cry the entire hour drive home.

I walked in my front door, grabbed the mail, and saw a card from a dear friend. She had timed mailing it to arrive on just that day, to congratulate me on my hard work and for finally, finally finishing my degree.

That’s when I broke down. I’m not sure how long I stood there in my living room, sobbing. I eventually got myself together and realized that one friend who didn’t have a cell phone and who was driving from a different state, was probably at the restaurant. She was. I met her there. I’m glad I did. The whole party was not something I could handle, but a drink with a close friend was the perfect thing.

I took a deep breath, and then another. I had come this far, and I was going to finish that degree.

My Journey to the PhD

Every so often, I am asked about my experience earning a PhD. Typically, the questioning comes from someone who wants to embark on earning the degree himself or herself. I feel an obligation to be honest, and to say that, given my experience earning that degree, I do not recommend following that path. That advice is usually met with surprise and disappointment. The truth is that earning a PhD was one of the most – if not the most – negative and unsatisfying endeavors of my life.

In one important way, I grew from the experience. I am a stronger person now, and have much more confidence in my own intellectual and professional abilities. But I learned those things in spite of my journey to the PhD, not because of it.

Earning the degree sounds so romantic and important, doesn’t it? Along the years it took me to earn the degree, I would try to talk to people about my concerns, my fears, and eventually, my nearly soul-crushing experiences. I was always met with, “But then people will call you Doctor!” and the even more frustrating, “But who wouldn’t want to hire you with a PhD.”

Here are two truths about having a PhD:

  1. Most people do not call you “Doctor,” and the people who insist upon being called Doctor by others are generally self-important jerks.
  2. Many, many people will not hire you because you have a PhD. The degree is overkill for a lot of jobs, and there are so few that do require it that getting one of those jobs in your field is virtually impossible. I know an awful lot of people with PhDs who are underemployed or who left academia altogether because they needed to earn a living and couldn’t do so in their chosen field.

Sure, I’m now in the top 2% of Americans in terms of education*, but so what? I also lost ten years of earning potential and career-building time while I put life on hold to earn that degree.

If the path to earning the degree had been satisfying in some way, that would have helped, I think, but the endeavor was fraught with frustration, red tape, insecurity of others, and lack of program structure and leadership. For a long time, I thought that my experience was unique to me and to my program.

In hindsight, though, I have met with plenty of others who have similar stories at different institutions. There is a whole community of us who love English language and literature, who went into the advanced study of our favorite subject out of love of story and humanity, and who are now limping towards creating a professional life that tries to reclaim that love. I feel it is time to write about some of those experiences, to share the truth of that experience, and in doing so, to move forward from it.

I do not write these stories to cast a negative light on my university, which I will not name in this space. This is because I do not believe that the challenges I experienced are unique to my institution. I also do not write these stories to influence anyone to making one decision or another. Pursuing an advanced degree might be the right path for you. My purpose here is to share my own experience in an effort to shed some light on it. Do with this information what you will.

*http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before

My Favorite Client

I have a secret: I have an all-time favorite client. I know, I know, clients are supposed to be like children, right? It’s bad form to have a favorite? Yet, one of them stands out from the rest and always has: The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation (TFT).

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Years ago, I worked for a direct mail agency. We specialized in direct mail fundraising campaigns for nonprofit organizations. While at this agency, I was the writer of record for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. I wrote fundraising appeals for them for years, and that remains some of the work about which I am the most proud.

TFT was easily my favorite client, for many reasons, in no particular order:

  • They were easy to work with. Let me tell you, the Marines run a tight ship (no pun intended). They are on time, always. They do what they say they will do. If there is a deadline, they will meet it. If they say they will send you source material, they send it (as opposed to saying “oh, just have the copywriter come up with something.” Ahem.).
  • This is the charity that sells itself. The bottom line is that it’s just not hard to rally people around the cause of children, toys, and Christmas. This is a cause that transcends religion, race, politics, gender, and anything else that tends to divide people. I have yet to meet the person who can’t be bothered to provide a simple, new, unwrapped toy for a child at Christmas. We all know the impact that doing so can make on a young life. We all know how easy it is to share our own bounty.
  • The low program expense ratio. To this day, close to 98% of donations received go toward the mission of providing a little Christmas to as many needy children as possible (Source). When you donate to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, you know exactly what your money is going to buy. Many donors find that comforting.

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Even though I have moved on from that agency, and have not written for Toys for Tots in some time, I still think about them every year when I trim my own Christmas tree, because I still have, and treasure, the Christmas ornaments given as favors at the annual Toys for Tots Foundation kick-off luncheon. Hanging those ornaments on my tree, I remember each family’s story I was privileged to read about and then to write about in an effort to support a very good cause. I am grateful for the opportunity to play a little part in helping make those families’ holidays special.

P.S. You can read some of my work for TFT on my Samples page.

My Story

Just over ten years ago, I made a decision.

I had been working at my job, writing direct mail fundraising letters for nonprofit organizations, for five years, and I was bored. Not of the work itself – I loved the writing. I loved telling stories, finding the meaning behind the ask, and making connections between organization and donor. I especially loved putting pen to paper, which I did, literally. I would frequently gather up my research materials, a fresh notepad and my favorite pen, and head to the conference room or the kitchen or even a bench outside to scratch away at some ideas that I carefully shaped into stories that become fundraising appeals.

Eventually, though, I wondered what else there was out there for me to do. I had expanded my role quite a bit from copywriter and editor, to freelance coordinator, to ad hoc public relations representative for my agency. I wrote articles for publication, edited fundraising letters that come in from freelancers, and carefully selected new freelancers to test on different appeals. But, after several years of similar mail plans, of membership packages, and of checking calendar proofs, I was ready for something more.

I took that hunger and curiosity and applied to graduate school. I only applied to two programs: an MFA and a PhD. The MFA program turned me down. The PhD program welcomed me in. Suddenly, I knew what I would be doing with my time for the next five to ten years.

My agency graciously allowed me to shift from full time to part time hours while I gave graduate school a try. That lasted for a time, but the call to explore new options was strong. I eventually left the agency that had been my professional home for five years and jumped in feet first to a new challenge: teaching.

Let me tell you something: teaching is far more difficult a profession than you think it is. My first teaching job was with a community college where I was handed the textbooks, a sample syllabus, and my schedule, and told “Welcome! We can’t pay you much, but we’re glad you’re here.”

That was the extent of my training. I walked into class the first day absolutely terrified. Somehow, I found my way. I even managed to have fun. Hopefully, I taught my students something. In time, I learned how to be a better teacher, but those first few classes, wow. Talk about a learning experience. That job was easily the toughest – yet most rewarding – job I have ever had in my life. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

Because I had some flexibility in my schedule, I began volunteering at the local zoo. Not too long after that, an opportunity opened up to teach at a different zoo, marrying my teaching experience with my volunteer experience into one very awesome yet spectacularly low-paying experience. I stayed at that zoo for more than seven years, advancing over time into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

The call to teach writing beckoned, though, and, quite frankly, so did the necessity of earning a better living. I began teaching for an online university while working at the zoo full time. I did this for two years. Once I knew it was time to move on from the zoo, I began applying for other positions, and was offered one in Miami that was very tempting. I knew, though, that the move was not the right one, for a variety of reasons. I also knew that, moving forward, I was only going to apply for local jobs that did not involve a move, with one exception: if the university where I taught had an opening for a full time position, I would apply.

Within three months of making that decision, a full time position did become available. I applied in September, gave notice to the zoo in October, started my new position remotely in November, and moved to a new state in December. It has now been two years, and I still sometimes look around, shake my head, and ask myself: how did I get here?

Over time, I will expand on this story a bit. I will share more about the different pieces of what led me from a pathway to a traditional academic career to a very different life at a zoo and then back to academia, but still in a somewhat non-traditional fashion.

Throughout the years, though, and throughout the experiences, the constants for me have been: education, both formal and informal; love of learning; love of nature and how it ties into our lives; travel experiences and how they foster a great love of global community; nonprofit missions, and their connection to direct mail; community and customer service; and putting pen to paper to tell a story. These are the themes I will explore in this blog moving forward. I hope you will join me.

What is Precise Words Copywriting?

Precise Words Copywriting is a professional copywriting and editing service specializing in direct mail fundraising for nonprofit organizations, as well as content writing, blogging, and editorial services for a variety of commercial clients.

Statement from Marie:

When I began my professional career, I had every intention of going into book publishing, however, by stroke of luck, a temporary position at a direct mail fundraising agency turned into a permanent one, and I spent the next five years writing direct mail fundraising letters, as well as writing press releases and industry publications, and managing the agency’s freelance writing staff. I was privileged to make an impact on the nonprofit community by using my skills. 

I left the industry to return to graduate school, where I earned a doctorate in English literature, and gained much experience teaching English literature and composition. I also spent a number of years serving in leadership roles at a large cultural institution that focuses on wildlife conservation. As an instructor, and now as an academic dean, I have been privileged to make a difference in the lives of many through working to teach writing skills to others. My academic speciality is in teaching beginning composition, because strong writing skills are necessary to succeed in any field. Every day I am inspired by my students, and am proud to play even a small part in their journey to receive their education. 

As a direct mail copywriter, I am able to continue serving the nonprofit community by writing for causes that are meaningful and important to me. I am also skilled at blogging, with experience writing about travel and automotive services, and my most recent experience includes writing product descriptions/catalogue copy for a major retailer. Please reach out to me today to find out how I can help your clients reach their best donors and customers and continue their good work.